Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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HSIEH PEI-JU: HEAVY CRAVING (2019) - virtual 2020 New York Asian Film Festival


Being oneself

Hsieh Pei-ju, who gained her MFA at Columbia University and here delivers her feature film debut as a director, taking us on a rocky road to putative self-acceptance in Heavy Craving, screened for this review in the New York Asian Film Festival. This is an uneven film, but one that makes a lively and generally pleasant impression. There's cuteness, also emotional shocks, also violence and surreal moments. Some plot details are left hanging, and psychological details aren't delved into too deeply. Luckily it's all anchored by Tsai Jia-yin, the actress who plays Ying-juan, who's at the center of the action. Tsai's naturalness and air of good nature reassure us whatever her character is going through. The message is, forget "normal," and outliers are not alone. Whenever I am feeling this movie has become silly or extreme, I remember that it's entertainment. In teaching, it sugars the pill.

Ying-Juan's evident talent and zest as a chef seems more than what's needed for the preschool her demanding mother Shu-fen (Samantha Ko) runs. The kids gobble up her productions but make fun of her for her weight and call her "Ms. Dinosaur." She doesn't hesitate to punch a kid playfully if he acts up. Ying-juan tips the scale at 230 pounds, making her decisively "obese," though she carries the weight around in a sprightly fashion. It also gives her a decisive advantage in hand-to-hand combat, as we shall see.

But her mother gives Ying-juan a birthday present that's a sign of disapproval, enrollment in a weight loss program for which we's seen the ad in the opening sequence, Action Weight and Body Wellness Center. This is the kind of outfit where the boss singles somebody out and passes around a plate of fat to show how much the subject is overweight, and shaming is combined with talk of "will power." (Can we say that the Brits - witness Phoebe Waller-Bridge's "Fleabag" - far outrank the Taiwanese in social satire?) On the side are slim maidens in uniform with neck scarves ready to sell Ying-juan expensive diet supplements or interest her, if all else fails, in gastric bypass surgery. (Ying-juan eventually submits to the latter, but neither the surgery nor its aftermath is explored in detail.)

While Ying-juan is submitting to this, which she does in a bargain to be allowed to plan the school meals, she makes two illustrative friends. There is Xiao-yu (Chang En-wei),a little boy who likes to cross-dress. He happens to be a top student. His wealthy mom knows but does not approve. There is Wu (Yao Chang), a handsome young man who works for the Golden delivery service. We soon find out why he befriends Ying-juan, after bringing her a diet pack delivery: it's because he used to be a fat boy, so fat he broke two seats at the pizza shop. He''s cute and now his physique seems quite perfect. But he has a guilty secret as to how he keeps the fat off, and when Ying-juan discovers it, Wu, in his embarrassment, disappears for a while. What other issues does Wu have? He goes to a movie with Ying-juan, and we can imagine how exciting it is for her to have such a handsome date, but we blanch to see her eating movie theater snacks. Apparently, a sugar-free drink on this occasion is what causes her to gain weight this week, to the great disapproval of the diet programmers, especially Fitness Coach Allen (William Hsieh).

Ying-juan becomes frustrated and goes on an extreme diet, to more disapproval, and people say she looks pale. Eventually she has the surgery - and the only clear result is that she loses her sense of taste. It is one of the surreal moments to see her uselessly stuffing herself with fried stuff at a fast food restaurant, findin even the sauce is tasteless to her. This is a low point for the usually ebullient Ying.

I don't know if Ying-juan's encouraging little tranny honor student Xiao-yu to wear a shimmering dress and blue wig to perform in a school show can be seen as a wise move, but it's a boldly indulgent one, and this may be a place where director Hsieh is expressing new and emerging attitudes in Taiwan. He looks fabulous, but his mother is furious with him and Ying-juan's mom knows she's responsible and is likewise enraged. This, with the apparent failure and disastrous effect on her olfactory system of her surgery, sends Ying-juan into a violent tailspin of acting out where she gets drunk and does damage to the Action Weight and Body Wellness Center. When any slim woman attacks Ying-juan, the latter's considerable avoirdupois enables her to toss away her opponent like a rag doll, as happens in a surreal imaginary battle with a "perfect" woman staged inside a stomach. The wreckage Ying has done at the weight loss clinic seems to be forgiven. Her mother finally seems to see something is wrong. A later scene shows a comfortable Ying-juan riding with Wu in his delivery truck. Not a resolution, a sketchy ending, but a pleasant sight, at least.
Ying-juan has learned to be herself. We must not put too fine a point on it. Obviously this film doesn't delve deep into the psychology of Ying-juan, Xiao-yu, or Wu. But there's laughter and good nature here, the moment of deep unhappiness doesn't drag on too long, and the message is an affirmation of self-acceptance, particularly of a range of body types, message delivered, as Letterboxd writer Becky Chen says, in "a gentle way, without chicken soup and without preaching." Tsai Jia-yin stands out for her authenticity and originality. As another Letterboxd writer says, this is "maybe not a fully formed piece," but its "bright color palette" providing a "sunny feel," with topics "tackled within" that are "dark and sensitive" but "balanced with many laughs, smiles and positivity," engage and instruct. This is what Hsieh Pei-ju contributes to the subject of self-acceptance.

Heavy Craving 大餓 ("Hungry"), 90 mins., debuted at Taipei Jun. 2019; international debut at Busan Oct. 2019. At Taipei it won the Audience Choice Award at Taipei Film Festival International New Directors Competition. Other fests included Taipei Golden Horse, Nov. 2019. Screened for this review as part of the virtual 2020 New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept. 12).

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kerr at Busan for Hollywood Reporter.

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